The Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of a Muslim-American man who said he was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for speaking in Arabic on his cellphone.
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was a public policy student at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time of the April 2016 incident. While awaiting takeoff at Los Angeles International Airport, Makhzoomi called his uncle to tell him about meeting and having dinner with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
What does the lawsuit say occurred?
But another passenger heard Makhzoomi speaking in Arabic and reported him to Southwest, a CAIR news release said. Makhzoomi was then removed from the plane, questioned by law enforcement and barred from returning to the flight. The suit said nothing happened to non-Arabic-speaking passengers using their cellphones.
The lawsuit said when Shoaib Ahmed — a Southwest agent named as a defendant in the suit — came to remove Makhzoomi from the plane, Ahmed tried to speak to Makhzoomi in Arabic. But Makhzoomi — who also is a refugee from Iraq — asked Ahmed to please speak in English, the suit added.
“You seem that you were having a serious conversation on the phone,” Ahmed told Makhzoomi, according to the suit. “Who were you talking to?”
After Makhzoomi told him, Ahmed replied, “Why are you talking in Arabic? You know the environment is very dangerous,” the suit claimed, adding that Ahmed told Makhzoomi he was being removed from the flight for speaking in Arabic.
Makhzoomi was then forced to stand in a corner in the terminal for 45 minutes “before being aggressively patted down and invasively searched in front of a crowd of onlookers and half a dozen police officers, including a K-9 unit,” the suit said. Makhzoomi “felt humiliated, in shock, confused, and began to silently cry,” the suit said.
What did the FBI allegedly do?
Enter officials from the FBI, the suit said, who took Makhzoomi to a private room, interrogated him and searched all of his belongings.
“Next time you are flying, don’t use your phone, just sit there,” an FBI agent told Makhzoomi, the suit noted, “and I advise you to apologize to Southwest.”
While Makhzoomi was finally cleared and released after several hours and Southwest refunded his ticket, the suit said the airline refused to book him on another flight and inconvenienced him, as Makhzoomi had to book a Delta flight to get home.
More from the lawsuit:
As direct and proximate result of Southwest’s intentional infliction of emotional distress, Plaintiff has suffered from long lasting shock; trauma; stigmatization; severe mental and emotional distress; embarrassment; public humiliation; damage to his personal and professional reputation; anxiety; insecurity; sleeplessness; fear and apprehension associated with airports and flying; and immense pressure to look and act a certain way so to camouflage his identity, including feeling the need to shave his beard prior to flying and to not travel with his Arabic studies books.
What does the plaintiff want?
Makhzoomi wants to be awarded compensatory and punitive damages, as well as legal fees, the lawsuit said.
What is Southwest saying?
Following the incident, Southwest said its employees followed proper procedure and that the “content” of Makhzoomi’s conversation — not the language — had prompted action, Reuters reported.
Southwest on Wednesday told TheBlaze that the “filing of litigation effectively closes a window for us to offer any commentary outside of court” but that the airline’s response when the allegations came out “still holds.”
Here’s an interview with Makhzoomi that aired shortly after the incident: